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The World Turned Upside Down

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume II, The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence

by Martin Bernal
Rutgers University Press, 736 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Professor Martin Bernal’s first volume of Black Athena, published in 1987, brought him instant fame as a defender of Semitic peoples and cultures against German Aryan-propagandists and other anti-Semites of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time Bernal became, as he apparently hoped, the chief intellectual antagonist of those who have over the centuries refused to acknowledge the contributions that black Africa has made to the development of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and therefore to European civilization and to the Eurocentric education of Americans. Egypt, as a geographical mediator between Africa and the Mediterranean, was said by Bernal to be both black and Semitic.

That first volume of Black Athena contained some excellent, if brief, nineteenth-century historiography, especially of anti-Semitic German and French scholarship, and sketched the intellectual climate of the several generations between about 1780 and 1940. Professor Bernal was able to select a number of striking quotations from scholars of classical antiquity which might now seem prejudiced, tasteless, laughable, or simply misinformed.

Yet even for eager readers of Black Athena I it was not always easy to understand the nature of the anti-Semitism that so angered Bernal. Friedrich August Wolf, in his Prolegomena to Homer, was charged with representing the Iliad and Odyssey as oral poetry, a “Romantic” sin in Bernal’s view. George Grote influenced the teaching of history unfairly by beginning with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC and thereby excluding the Egyptian and Phoenician contributions to Greek culture in the Bronze Age—though the Bronze Age was not known yet in 1846. Thomas and Matthew Arnold were wrong to admire the classics, and German education, and ought not to have promoted “Victorian Hellenism.” J.B. Bury was at fault when he described the Spartans as refusing to intermarry with their helots, thus keeping their blood “pure.” Carl Blegen was wrong to suggest that Greece and Asia Minor may have shared common place names like Parnassus; he should have looked first to Egypt and Phoenicia. Rhys Carpenter was wrong—and had “sinister” motives—when he suggested that the Greeks did not adopt the Phoenician alphabet before the eighth century BC.

Still, even when they were puzzled, many scholars were attracted to the apparently evenhanded and refreshing survey in Black Athena I, with its often justifiable condemnation of the narrow-minded teaching of the classics that assumed the cultural superiority of the Greeks without reference to Egypt and the East. They waited with anticipation for the second volume, which was to offer the archaeological documentation for the belief that Egypt and the Levant inspired the culture of the Greeks.

Greek culture has often been perceived as “special,” and this has caused resentment in regions of the world whose art and literature and philosophy have not been so acclaimed. Black Athena I was a thoughtful exposé of how eminent German scholars like Wilhelm von Humboldt felt that “the Greeks” were superior: “Knowledge of the Greeks is not merely pleasant, useful or necessary to us—no, in the Greeks alone we find the ideal of that which we should like to be and produce.” The “special relationship” between Germany and Greece led some scholars to hope—and to believe—that the Aryan ancestors of the Greeks had arrived there from the northwest (“somewhere in Germany”), and some to feel that Greek history should be purged of those “darker elements” which might be traced back to the “Orient,” the Phoenicians or Egyptians, and so might stain the purity of the Aryan or Indo-European heritage. That process of historical revision was also matched in the treatment of historic sites. On the Acropolis of Athens, for example, buildings from periods of Slavic, Arabic, Crusader, Venetian, and Ottoman rule, or influence, intervening between the ancient Greeks and the modern Germans, were systematically eradicated—so that contact between the intellectual present and the fifth-century Greek past should find no barrier.1

The archaeological and philological scholars who specialize in ancient Greece made Bernal welcome among them, and debated his theories openly. It is with a slight sense of surprise, then, that we learn in Black Athena II that the entire profession of Bronze Age Aegea and Classical archaeologists is condemned as ignorant, prejudiced, and racist.

Modern archaeologists have been led astray for reasons that can be relatively easily explained in terms of the sociology of knowledge…the desire of the new professionals to appear sober and responsible and not indulge in the spectacular theories to which amateurs are so attracted.

All of us before Bernal have failed to understand the true course of ancient history. At the end of his very long book, he declares, without noticeable modesty, “If a significant quantity of what I claim in this volume is correct, much of contemporary work on the archaeology and ancient history of the East Mediterranean will have to be rethought.”

But is it correct? Or is it, as with Milton’s Lucifer,

But all was false and hollow, though his tongue
Dropp’d manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest counsels…
(Paradise Lost II.112)

A great deal is perplexing about this second volume, which claims to offer “the archaeological evidence.” Bernal has done an enormous amount of reading—there are eighty pages of bibliography—but he in fact includes very little standard archaeology, in the sense of reference to excavated evidence, stratification of different civilizations, social organization, or cultural artifacts. There is far more about legends, and linguistics, and revised chronologies. Unfortunately, Bernal handles most of his archaeological discussion by simple assertion.

Bernal, professor of modern Chinese government and politics at Cornell, here claims his own authoritative dominance of the Ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Aegean world. That world consists, in archaeological or modern territorial terms, of Egypt, Nubia, the Sudan, the coasts of the Red Sea, Cyrenaica (in modern Libya) and other parts of coastal North Africa, Palestine (Israel and Jordan), Lebanon, Syria, Mesopotamia, Turkey, Cyprus, Crete, Greece, southern Italy, Sicily, and at times also of Malta, Sardinia, and coastal Spain. The period covered is broadly from the Late Stone Age, about 8000 BC (or BCE, or 10,000 BP—before present—if we want to be more politically correct), to the decline of the ancient Bronze Age empires of Egypt, Hittite Anatolia, and Mycenaean Greece between 1200 and 1100 BC.

One might well ask, and many have, what a modern Chinese specialist of great repute is doing in these old Mediterranean civilizations. An answer might be that none of us can afford in these international times to be ignorant or restricted specialists working in such limited cultural spheres as Bronze Age Greece and Crete, or Greece, or Rome. Another, more personal, reason might be that the author’s grandfather was Sir Alan Gardiner, the renowned specialist in the Egyptian scripts and languages, whose dictionary is still in current use.

Bernal, in order to explore the relationships of cultures in the Mediterranean Bronze Age, has concentrated on a largely artificial “conflict” between East and West, and has claimed that those who believed in some kind of natural intellectual and artistic superiority of the Greeks did so because they were racist, probably anti-Semitic. Yet it was the Greeks themselves who first drew a sharp contrast between Asia and Europe, between “Us” in the democratic West and the “Barbarians” in the royal, imperial East. This distinction is clear both in the case of the national poetic myth of the Trojan War, and in the exhilarating climate of the unexpected Greek victories over the invading Persian armies and navies at the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, from 490 to 479 BC.

At first the Greeks—or the southern cities, as opposed to the northern tribes—were simply relieved that they were not to be a part of the Persian Empire after all; then the Athenians began to dream of an empire for themselves, and to act imperially by using their fleet and exacting tribute from others. Then, when that dream turned into a nightmare, by the end of the fifth century, at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars, and Persian gold became a constant “corrupting” element in Greek politics, a new attitude began to coalesce around the theme, perhaps first voiced by Aeschylus in his Persians, that Greeks were naturally superior to Persians because they were intelligent and free and subject only to law, while Persians were enslaved to the Great King who was unaccountable for his actions and could kill or mutilate by whim. It should be noted that this familiar conflict between East and West had nothing at all to do with Semites or Blacks; Greeks and Persians were both Indo-European in their speech, like the Greeks and Trojans who were their original poetic and mythic models.

Professor Bernal began his quest for a “new” interpretation of history by claiming that the East was largely “Semite” and Egypt largely Black, while Greece was the land colonized by both. Scholars who did not accept the important contributions made by Egypt and the East to Greek culture were to be castigated. But scholars have at least two reasons to be indignant about Bernal’s claims. First, no one has ever doubted the Greek debt to Egypt and the East. Schliemann thought he had found a Chinese pot at Troy, and was delighted; Sir Arthur Evans was equally pleased to see “the Libyan codpiece” turn up in Crete, and confidently derived Cretan tholos tombs from stone circles found in modern Libya. (That Libyans build overnight stone circles to restrain their horses even now, and that one of Evans’s Libyan circles is in fact an Italian gun emplacement of World War I, does not erase the open-mindedness of the intellect behind the idea.) Why on earth does Bernal claim that he is the first ever to look to Egypt and the East, when virtually all contemporary scholars have welcomed every new sign of contact, and tried to trace, in the words of the late Egyptologist William Stevenson Smith, “interconnections in the Ancient Near East”?2 The other reason for indignation is the constant perversion of facts in this book, a sad matter from a serious historian.

Professor Bernal believes, or seems to believe, that there is no essential difference between Egyptian culture and language, written in hieroglyphs, and the languages of the ancient Near East, written in cuneiform. Large sections of his book consist of claims that words from one language derive from another. When it is convenient for him, he will also include the language of the Hurrian people in this linguistic melting pot. In the wake of Bernal’s imagined Egyptian conquest of central Greece in the third millennium BC, Thisbe in Greek Boeotia is named for Teshub, the Hurrian storm god. It is not clear how the Hurrian storm god is connected to the invading Egyptians, but there is a great deal that is not clear in Bernal’s second volume; confusion is the cost of reading it.

  1. 1

    R.A. MacNeal, “Archaeology and the Destruction of the Later Athenian Acropolis,” Antiquity, Vol.65 (March 1991),pp.49–63.

  2. 2

    W.S. Smith, Interconnections in the Ancient Near East (Yale University Press, 1965).

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